New faces, but old issues facing Miami in 2012

The starting quarterback, gone. The team’s most productive

runner in a decade, gone. The top two receivers, gone. The best

defensive player and unquestioned locker-room leader, gone.

Still, somehow, hope is not gone at Miami.

Even after a 6-6 season, and even with the NCAA investigation

into compliance practices that overshadowed last season still

unresolved – sanctions aren’t expected to be handed down until

early next year – the Hurricanes are heading into Al Golden’s

second year on the sideline insisting they have enough talent to

contend in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

”For us to get back to where we want to be in the college

football world, we can talk about everything and what the

expectations are and anything on the outside,” Golden said. ”But

the reality of it is, for us at the University of Miami, right

here, right now, there’s only one way out, and that’s the (ACC’s)

Coastal Division.”

If that’s the case, the Hurricanes might still need some more

time to get things on the right road.

Miami has not won an ACC title since joining the league, and

hardly anyone expects that to change in 2012. The Hurricanes

finished in a tie for fourth in the Coastal last season at 3-5, and

were picked fifth in the six-team division in this year’s preseason

poll. That would have seemed unthinkable a decade ago, though this

team has serious questions to answer, and last year’s team wasn’t

exactly world-beaters to begin with.

”We want to set our mark,” said freshman defensive back Tracy

Howard, a highly touted recruit who signed with Miami despite the

looming NCAA issues and may wind up starting right away. ”We want

to be known as the guys who brought `The U’ back.”

On offense, there are new faces in key roles.

Stephen Morris starts the year having assumed the quarterback

role from Jacory Harris (2,486 yards, 20 touchdowns as a senior in

2011). Mike James becomes the featured running back now that Lamar

Miller (1,272 yards, nine TDs in his final college season) is with

the Miami Dolphins – though freshman back Randy ”Duke” Johnson

will likely see tons of carries by the time the season ends. Tommy

Streeter left early and Travis Benjamin graduated, a duo that

combined to catch 87 passes, 11 of them for touchdowns, last


Defensively, Sean Spence was widely considered Miami’s best

player for the past two seasons. He’s now with the Pittsburgh

Steelers, leaving the Hurricanes with a gaping hole at both

linebacker and leader. So it’s up to players like James to assume

the role, and he said the Hurricanes are clearly not the same time

they were a year ago.

”It feels different,” James said. ”It has to feel different.

It looks and feels different. Guys have a real competitive edge to

them. They know what we have to get done and they’re doing


Of all the newcomers, Johnson might be the most talked-about. He

was Florida’s high school ”Mr. Football” award winner last

season, after leading Miami Norland to a state championship and

piling up 266 all-purpose yards in the title game. Johnson had 208

carries as a senior; he averaged 10 yards on each of those.

”We do have to game plan and scheme for him to get some touches

and we have to figure out how, whatever he’s able to handle,”

Miami offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said this summer. ”But he’s

not coming in here in a capacity where he’s being given a job. He

has to earn it. We don’t give jobs based on high school


Morris beat another South Florida native, Memphis transfer Ryan

Williams, out for the first-string quarterback role. The offense –

and really, the direction of the season – is on Morris’ shoulders,

and he said he welcomes having that sort of responsibility.

”Everybody knows we’re not trying to have another 6-6 or 7-6

season,” Morris said. ”It’s not just what this program was built

on. We can’t be happy with another season like that. Our job is to

try to continue to do better.”

Miami imposed a bowl ban last season because of the ongoing NCAA

investigation that started into claims made by a former booster and

convicted Ponzi scheme architect who said he provided extra

benefits to athletes and recruits over an eight-year period. The

hits have kept coming since: A number of underclassmen left early,

and not long ago safety Ray-Ray Armstrong – one of the players

linked to that investigation – was dismissed from the program.

On top of that, this year’s schedule is daunting.

In the season’s first four weeks, Miami goes on the road to

Boston College, Kansas State and Georgia Tech. The only home game

in that stretch is against lower-division Bethune-Cookman, a team

that gave the Hurricanes fits a year ago. Miami heads to Chicago to

face Notre Dame on Oct. 6, rekindling one of the college game’s top


And the only homestand of the season hardly shapes up as easy –

North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia Tech to kick off the

second half of the schedule.

Golden said the ”football intelligence” of where the

Hurricanes are now is superior to a year ago. Time will tell if

that translates into more wins.

”I believe the system is better than 6-6 right now,” Golden

said. ”I just think we have to all be on the same page.”

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